Saturday, September 5, 2020

 Week 16: The Soul of America


In his speech at the Democrat Party National Convention, as well as in his speeches along the virtual campaign trail, Joe Biden has asserted that the forthcoming election is about the soul of the nation. This is to say the party that lays claim to victory on third of November also lays claim, to great extent, to the soul of America. To a certain degree, I am inclined to agree with his assessment.


I do qualify my agreement with Mr. Biden’s assertion with “to a certain degree,” because we, good citizens, continue to benefit from the collective wisdom of the Founders. Because our elected representatives must seek our approval through elections every two, four or six years, there are regular opportunities to refresh our government and breathe new life into our nation’s collective soul.


To be a bit more precise in terms of the significance of this particular election, the winning party will be in a position to continue or discontinue the economic, regulatory and foreign policies that ushered in widespread prosperity prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and have prevented our engagement in new military conflicts. The winning party will be in the likely position of appointing multiple justices to the Supreme Court. The winning party will set the tone for how we, the citizens of this land, see and interact with one another.


In last week’s post, you were introduced to Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian Party candidate for president. We discussed, at a high level, the idea of Classical Liberalism. I know, as anyone familiar with the Founders and their writings knows, that Libertarianism is the only contemporary political philosophy that genuinely nurtures and is nurtured by the soul of the nation, as conceived by those men and women of 1776 and 1789 and as imbued with Enlightenment principles.


Alas, pragmatism awakens me from the blissful slumber of the philosophical world, and it calls me to the realities of the political world. In the political world, I fear that the electorate is not yet ready for Libertarianism and the responsibilities for which it calls and the benefits it confers.


Consequently, we are left with the Republicans and the Democrats. Pray consider, gentle reader, which party – which candidate – not only understands the soul of our country but also has a record of nourishing and lifting up that soul. 


First, let us explore the nature of the soul. The word “soul” comes from the Proto-Germanic word saiwalō, meaning “life” or “living being.” In this context, Mr. Biden could be talking about the very life of our nation. Let us explore the concept a bit further.

The Pythagoreans looked on the concept of soul as harmony within the body. For our purposes, might we conclude that it could be harmony within the body politic?

Plato considered the world-soul as a harmony of “sameness,” which is the universality of “Ideas.” When we consider the fundamental tenant of our nation’s founding, that “all men are created equal,” it is clear that the notion of “sameness” or universality is at play.

In Aristotelian ethics, as it relates to the concept of soul, the idea of rationality is included. This idea of a rational soul includes possessing and being obedient to reason. In their “History of Political Philosophy,” Strauss and Cropsey write, “The proper function of man is therefore the putting-to-work or activity (energeia) of the soul in accordance with reason, or rather the most excellent form of such activity.” They continue, “happiness or the human good can be defined then, as activity of the soul in accordance with excellence or virtue (arete) and, if there are several virtues, in accordance with the best and most perfect.” We will return, momentarily, to the virtues, as they seem integral to our evaluation of those who would lay claim to the soul of America.

In Scholasticism, Saint Thomas Aquinas brings forth the principles of the soul as considered in Aristotelianism into Christian ethics. It is important to note that, according to Aquinas, the soul is created at a specific point in time in an organism’s development. Augmenting the Greek’s conception, Aquinas teaches that the soul is immortal, surviving past the time it leaves the earthly vessel that is our physical body. For our purposes, we may consider the organism to be our society or nation and that point in time to be the one at which a social contract is promulgated, such as our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

While a discussion of the nature of the soul could go on for days and days, or – as it in fact has – for millennia, let us return to Aristotle.

What does it mean to possess and be obedient to reason? Aristotle tells us that, in part, it is acting in accordance with excellence or virtue. Virtue has a special, well-defined meaning in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The virtues include: courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty and righteous indignation. Attendant to each of these virtues are two opposing vices – a vice of deficiency and a vice of excess. The goal is to live in the mean between the two vices.

I encourage you, kind reader, to look up a table of Aristotelian virtues and to consider your candidate and that of the opposition. Based on their deeds, not their words, evaluate where they fall on each virtue: in the mean, in excess or in deficiency. I suspect you will find that neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Trump is the virtuous leader we deserve. In my own evaluation, based on the virtues, I do believe one is more grounded in the mean than the other, but sharing my personal assessment of the two is not the point of today’s message.

One may be confounded by the dilemma at hand. If neither candidate is the virtuous person we need to preserve, protect and defend the soul of our nation, how can one rightly choose the best candidate for this purpose? Again, let us turn to Aristotle.

Exploring the virtuous person, Strauss and Cropsey write, “Aristotle’s intention emerges with particular clarity in a passage in the Eudemian Ethics. He there distinguishes between two sorts of virtuous men, the ‘good man’ (agathos), who acts virtuously for the sake of acquiring the naturally good things of life (i.e., primarily wealth and honors), and the ‘noble and good man’ (kaloskagathos), who performs the actions of virtue for their own sake, or because they are noble.” Strauss and Cropsey pick up this thread later in the passage, writing, “Aristotle indicates that the majority of ‘political men’ are ‘good men’ in this sense, while denying their right to be called such: ‘For the political man is one who chooses to perform fine actions for their own sake, but the majority of them take up this sort of life for profit and personal aggrandizement.’”

Strauss and Cropsey encourage us, based on Aristotle’s ethics, to distinguish between the person who seeks office for his own enrichment and honor and the person who seeks it for a higher purpose.

Neither candidate is completely virtuous – and to be true, none of is so, as we are all human. Of the two major political parties’ candidates for President, one became wealthy as a result of his public office; the other became wealthy as a result of his private life and then sought public office. The former, Mr. Biden, is a multimillionaire. The latter, Mr. Trump, is a billionaire, who is not accepting the remuneration due him for his work as President, instead, donating each check to charity.

Make no mistake, I begrudge no one his or her wealth. I applaud people who are successful, by any measure. Generally, a person acting in a private capacity obtains wealth through voluntary exchange – making something of value that another person agrees to buy. A person acting in a public capacity becomes wealthy through coercion and corruption, pressuring people into financial arrangements in exchange for political favor.

As the election nears, candidly reflect on the actions of each candidate – words aside – and determine whose actions reveal a “good man” and whose actions reveal a “noble and good man,” and then vote accordingly.

p.s. I would entreat you again to look at Dr. Jorgensen through the same lens of Aristotle’s virtues and through his comparison of a person who is “good” and who is “noble and good.” I would venture to guess that the choice among the candidates would quickly become clear.




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